Aesthetics be damned, the Portland Timbers used pluck to steal a point from the Seattle Sounders on Saturday night. In the grander scheme, however, the effort showed that the Timbers may have the capacity to gel into a team that can win consistently – even if they still have a ways to go at this point.
Portland opened the chances in the first minute when Darlington Nagbe found Diego Valeri in the middle of the field on a special pass through the Sounders defense from the wing. Valeri’s swerving shot from distance was on target, but Michael Gspurning made a diving save to his left.
The Timbers’ best chance from their promising early spell came in the 9th minute when Ryan Johnson played a dangerous cross through the box, but Darlington Nagbe couldn’t quite get to the ball to tap home.
As we have seen over the past several weeks, however, the wheels can fall of a seemingly smoothly running Timbers wagon in a hurry. Just four minutes after Nagbe nearly found the net for Portland, Diego Chara lazily turned a ball over to Steve Zakuani on the right wing while trying to interchange with Ben Zemanski. Zakuani took a clear path into the box and crossed to Eddie Johnson who routinely tapped home.
The next twenty minutes marked the darkest period for Portland on Saturday, as the Sounders repeatedly victimized an out-of-place Chara on the Timbers right wing. In the 19th minute, Eddie Johnson earned space by faking Chara out of his boots and unleashed a shot that Donovan Ricketts could only nervously parry away.
The Timbers would weather the rest of the storm, however, and before halftime make some noise of their own.
The first noisy moment, however, came courtesy of the silence of referee Kevin Stott’s whistle, as in the 25th minute the Timbers took their penalty-denying show on the road when Jhon Kennedy Hurtado scissor tackled Ryan Johnson in the box, but nothing was given. While Hurtado got a touch on the ball, the dangerous nature of the tackle would have made it a sure booking – if perhaps a straight sending off – anywhere else on the field.
After a stretch of positive play, the Timbers looked like they might challenge for an equalizer before halftime, but time and again lacked the touch to finish good build up play. In the 42nd minute, a quality Ben Zemanski cross bounced around the box and fell for Darlington Nagbe, but he pulled his shot well wide.
The Timbers promising play became choppier after halftime, as the Seattle team that was looking to attack in the first half essentially shut down to preserve their 1-0 lead. With the shift in Seattle’s tactics, a feeling grew that the Timbers were going to have to either labor to unlock Seattle’s defense or convert a set piece. Diego Valeri almost did the latter in the 49th minute, when his free kick from 30 yard out on the right side glanced off the bar.
From there, however, there would be very little for either side until the late stages. Seattle was content to sit back and protect the 1-0 lead, hoping an opportunity to counter and get at an exposed Timbers’ defense would present itself. Portland, for its part, flooded the left side of the field, and tried to generate opportunities by creating imbalance. While the tactic didn’t directly lead to a goal, it did generate several opportunities for Ben Zemanski to come forward on a vacant right side and send a ball into the box.
The Timbers couldn’t open up Seattle’s packed-in defense, however, until the dying stages. The Sounders defense showed its first crack in the 89th minute, when Ryan Johnson ran through a gaggle of rave green-clad defenders, but had his shot deflected just over the bar on top of the goal.
That crack turned into a gaping hole a minute later, and Rodney Wallace took full advantage. After a Diego Valeri cross was cleared, Andrew Jean-Baptiste gathered in space and sent back into the box. Rodney Wallace, completely unmarked, ran near post and nodded into the back of the net for the dramatic equalizer.
As was to be expected, the Timbers’ offense lost a good share of its dynamism heading out on the road. It was still good enough, however, to occupy Ozzie Alonso and, ultimately, scratch out an equalizer.
The story after the match, however, was the improvement of the defense. Whereas in weeks past, the defense was making multiple major mistakes per game, the backline turned in a much more complete performance against Seattle. They weren’t perfect, but their performance marked significant progress from the previous two outings.
After justified concern about the defense over the past three weeks, then, the Timbers showed on Saturday that they may be able to gel into a successful one on both sides of the ball. There is still a lot of work to do, but Saturday showed, if anything, that the defense has the capacity to permit this team to earn results.
Quotes & Observations
- The continued gelling of the team was a clear theme in the postgame comments. Caleb Porter emphasized the large number of new players being integrated into the team, noting that there may not be another team in MLS starting six players who weren’t with the club last year. He noted, “But again, we’re three games in and we’re still working out kinks. But I’m pleased that we’re gelling as quick as we are.”
- Will Johnson echoed those sentiments in the locker room. When asked what the difference between this defensive effort and those the Timbers put on in the two weeks prior, Johnson answered “More time together. We were compact. We were unified in our movement and our shape. We just need some time to get this going.”
- Johnson and Porter’s point is certainly well taken. Considering the tremendous changes that took place over the offseason, it would have been nothing less than a miracle if the team came in without some kinks to iron out. Nonetheless, Saturday was the first real indication that the team’s defensive deficiencies were a kink rather than a fundamental flaw. Now Porter will have to go back to work to figure out the best way to balance the offense, high pressure defense, and cover for the backline. The success he has at that task will go a long way toward determining the success of this team.
Donovan Ricketts, 5.5 – Nothing he could have done on the concession, and did well to save Johnson’s effort at a second seven minutes later. Otherwise, he didn’t have a whole lot to do, as the Timbers limited Seattle to seven shots, only three of which were on target.
Ben Zemanski, 6.5 – A really nice starting eleven debut for Ben Zemanski. Solid game defensively, and did a good job of knowing when to get forward and when to hang back. Sent a couple dangerous looking crosses into the box, suggesting more assists may be in the cards for him.
Andrew Jean-Baptiste, 6 – Overall a decent outing for AJB, but his grade is somewhat depressed by his failure to track Johnson on the first concession. Johnson went far post and Jean-Baptiste, for some reason, went near post. Helped get it back, though, with his nice ball to Wallace for the equalizer.
Mikael Silvestre, 6 – Still had some squirrely moments, but had many more confident ones. A much better performance from Silvestre makes for interesting decisions when David Horst gets healthy.
Michael Harrington, 5 – Didn’t have a whole lot to do defensively, as Seattle was focused on attacking the Timbers’ right side. Didn’t have a whole lot to do offensively, as the Timbers were more conservative with their fullbacks. Capably did not a whole lot.
Diego Chara, 3.5 – One of the poorest performances we’ve seen from Diego. Was noticeably out of place when he was playing wide on the right, which led to a goal conceded and another dangerous situation. Once the Timbers shifted left, Diego was much more central. And much more effective.
Jack Jewsbury, 5.5 – Steady, reliable, not especially noticeable. In other words, a good defensive central midfielder. Also adds the threat of a true crack from distance, which is nice.
Darlington Nagbe, 4 – Was a little bit wasteful on the couple instances he had a ball fall to him in the box, and didn’t have much space to exploit.
Will Johnson, 6 – Johnson is a little bit of an acquired taste, as his contributions are usually a step or two away from the ultimate payoff, but over the course of a game it’s hard to ignore his propensity for making the right pass and sterling work ethic.
Diego Valeri, 4.5 – Was borderline bad when he was at second striker, as it didn’t let him pick up the ball deep and pick apart the defense. When he was allowed to roam into the midfield toward the end of the first half, things immediately improved offensively for Portland.
Ryan Johnson, 5 – A little bit unlucky not to draw a penalty, but was otherwise fairly quiet. Has shown an ability to work through multiple defenders to get into the box, which will pay off one of these days.
Frederic Piquionne, 3 – He didn’t really play a position, or, you know, run. So that was weird.
Rodney Wallace, 7.5 – Twice in three games, now, Rod Wallace has come on and made a real difference. The guy has earned and taken his fair share of knocks, but his contributions in the first few weeks of the season are undeniable. Until further notice, Wallace is the first man off the bench in most situations.
Jose Valencia, INC. – Should have come on in Piquionne’ spot.
Preseason Prediction: Sounders 3, Timbers 1. Kalif Alhassan.
Actual Result: Timbers 1, Sounders 1. Rodney Wallace.
Onward, Rose City!
 “Flopping” might be more accurate.